Saturday, December 01, 2007

Note to city of Madison officials: This is just plain dumb (and downright irresponsible)

Note to Madison City Officials: This Is Really Dumb!
In the midst of Madison's snow emergency today, I was driving north on Edgewood Avenue on the near west side, slowly and carefully following the ruts in the snow. Suddenly there was a terrible, jarring ka-WHOMP!, followed by another an instant later.

Fortunately, I was going well under 20 miles per hour, or serious damage might have ensued. My car seems to be fine, but I still can't believe I ran right over the very unmarked traffic calming island I warned a couple weeks ago would become a hazard in the snow. And as you can see from the tracks in the snow, I wasn't alone.

This is so dumb, it's enough to make you wonder what's really going on here: Is this a test for drivers? Is the traffic calming island hidden beneath the snow meant to be an unpleasant surprise for those who fail the test? Or is some disgruntled planning person trying to punish all motorists, because if there were no motorists traffic planning would be so much simpler? Or is it some experiment in natural selection, whereby all the presumably bad drivers would disable their vehicles by crashing over these things, and then all that would be left on the streets would be the good drivers? Or is it some bureaucratic scheme so Kafkaesque in its scope that it's impossible to imagine?

More likely, it's an oversight, and it needs to be fixed. Really, I think the city could spare a few warning signs or orange traffic cones for these things.

12.13.07 UPDATE: What about the snowplows?

Friday, November 30, 2007

Sigh. Back to reality.

Sigh. Back to Reality.
Every bar in Madison with satellite television was packed, and some had to turn people away. At the Blue Moon I was told at the door, "Sorry, we're at capacity." That was probably true at the Laurel Tavern, too, but I managed to squeeze in. We were there to find out how long a 38-year-old quarterback, holder of almost every record in the book, could hold back time. The answer proved to be 11 games, not 12, as the Packers lost their game plan, their composure, their iconic quarterback and the game, by a margin of 37-27. Now the road to the NFC championship, if there is one, will lead through Texas Stadium, not the Frozen Tundra in January. Sigh.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Pondering the future of books and reading in the MPL's Sequoya Branch parking lot

Pondering the Future of the Book in the Madison Public Library's Sequoya Branch Parking Lot
All during my 45-minute commute home through the Wisconsin countryside, I listened to a discussion on the radio about the effect of the Internet on the future of books and reading. I was stopping at the library branch near my home to pick up a book I had reserved after reading about it on the Internet, which seemed ironic given the subject matter of the discussion. Since they were still talking, I parked the car in front of the library and listened.

What had caught my attention was this broadcast of public radio's On Point, which airs here in the evening. The guests were Stephen Levy, who wrote the Newsweek cover story on the future of reading, and literary critic Sven Birkerts, author of The Gutenberg Elegies. They were discussing Amazon's new Kindle e-book and the future of reading, going on to discuss, in a broader sense, the future of books in a wired world. This was just a day after the National Endowment for the Arts issued this gloomy report on the state of reading in America.
The percentage of adults who are proficient in reading prose has fallen at the same time that the proportion of people who read regularly for pleasure has declined.

Three years ago [the NEA's] “Reading at Risk,” which was based on a study by the Census Bureau in 2002, provoked a debate among academics, publishers and others, some of whom argued that the report defined reading too narrowly by focusing on fiction, poetry and drama. Others argued that there had not been as much of a decline in reading as the report suggested.

This time the endowment did not limit its analysis to so-called literary reading. It selected studies that asked questions about “reading for fun” or “time spent reading for pleasure,” saying that this could refer to a range of reading materials.

“It’s no longer reasonable to debate whether the problem exists,” said Sunil Iyengar, director of research and analysis for the endowment. “Let’s not nitpick or wrangle over to what extent is reading in decline.”
Fewer and fewer people are reading for fun. That's the context in which Levy and Birkerts were discussing the technology of reading. The reason I remained in the car was that I was waiting to hear a single mention of the word "library."

I waited in vain. Levy and Birkerts did not talk about libraries. This strikes me as an incredible omission. I don't see how you can discuss the future of books and reading without discussing libraries. Public libraries encourage a love of reading among the young and sustain it among adults. And Amazon's Kindle alone will never do that. It can only be filled with content you purchase, and in order to purchase it, you need to know what you want to buy.

Sometimes, we go to the library because we know what we want to read. Sometimes we don't. To go to the library is to go swimming in a vast sea of literature -- not just today's latest self-help books and heavily hyped best sellers -- but books from every time and place, one vast backlist that doesn't get remaindered, or at least not very often. The library is where one thing leads to another. The library is the place where a walk in the stacks can change your life -- where you go to find something to read, and in the process discover yourself. It's hard to see e-books totally replacing that, which is why it's so important to support and nurture our public libraries.

This is what I was thinking as I parked in the dark in front of the Sequoya branch of the library and listened to the guys on the radio. I would have called in and told them, except that the show is taped in the morning in Boston.

Sign of the times? Leading political and economic indicator?

Political and Economic Indicator?
I passed this on the way to work today. A distress signal? A dire prediction? Someone's protest? Things can change so quickly. Somebody or something loosens the top screw and the whole thing pivots upside down in just the blink of an eye -- like the U.S. economic and political situations. Hwy 12&18, east of Madison, Wisconsin.

I saw the sign after reading today's Paul Krugman column "Winter of Our Discontent" about the recent Gallup report showing American economic pessimism at a record high -- despite the fact we're not even in a recession yet. Bush supporters say this is because the media don't report the good news. Krugman says it's because most working Americans have not shared in today's prosperity, and contrasts today's situation with that a decade ago.
One way to drive this point home is to compare the situation for workers today with that in the late 1990s, when the country’s economic optimism was almost as remarkable as its pessimism today. For example, in the fall of 1998 almost two-thirds of Americans thought the economy was excellent or good.

The unemployment rate in 1998 was only slightly lower than the unemployment rate today. But for working Americans, everything else was different. Wages were rising, yet inflation was low, so the purchasing power of workers’ take-home pay was steadily improving. So, too, were job benefits, including the availability of health insurance. And homeownership was rising steadily.

It was, in other words, a time when Americans felt they were sharing in the country’s prosperity.
We're sure not sharing in it today. I wonder if we'll be seeing more upside-down traffic signs.